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The US Presidential Debates' Illusion Of Political Choice

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Cross-posted from The Guardian

The issue is not what separates Romney and Obama, but how much they agree. This hidden consensus has to be exposed


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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver. Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney underscored a core truth about America's presidential election season: the vast majority of the most consequential policy questions are completely excluded from the process. This fact is squarely at odds with a primary claim made about the two parties -- that they represent radically different political philosophies -- and illustrates how narrow the range of acceptable mainstream political debate is in the country.

In part this is because presidential elections are now conducted almost entirely like a tawdry TV reality show. Personality quirks and trivialities about the candidates dominate coverage, and voter choices, leaving little room for substantive debates.

But in larger part, this exclusion is due to the fact that, despite frequent complaints that America is plagued by a lack of bipartisanship, the two major party candidates are in full-scale agreement on many of the nation's most pressing political issues. As a result these are virtually ignored, drowned out by a handful of disputes that the parties relentlessly exploit to galvanise their support base and heighten fear of the other side.

Most of what matters in American political life is nowhere to be found in its national election debates. Penal policies vividly illustrate this point. America imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation on earth by far, including countries with far greater populations. As the New York Times reported in April 2008: "The United States has less than 5% of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."

Professor Glenn Loury of Brown University has observed that these policies have turned the US into "a nation of jailers" whose "prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history." The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik called this mass incarceration "perhaps the fundamental fact [of American society], as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850."

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[Subscribe to Glenn Greenwald] Glenn Greenwald is a journalist,former constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times bestselling books on politics and law. His most recent book, "No Place to Hide," is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. His forthcoming book, to be published in April, 2021, is about Brazilian history and current politics, with a focus on his experience in reporting a series of expose's in 2019 and 2020 which exposed high-level corruption by powerful officials in the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, which subsequently attempted to prosecute him for that reporting.

Foreign Policy magazine named Greenwald one of the top 100 Global Thinkers for 2013. He was the debut winner, along with "Democracy Now's" Amy Goodman, of the Park Center I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism in 2008, and also received the 2010 Online Journalism Award for his investigative work breaking the story of the abusive (more...)
 

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